Nationals Reprise Role of Sosa Suitor

By Barry Svrluga and Jorge Arangure Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Washington Nationals were in discussions yesterday with an agent for former all-star slugger Sammy Sosa, talks that could culminate in a deal in which Sosa would try to rehabilitate his career in Washington after one of his worst seasons.

"We're going to sit down and see what happens," Sosa said by telephone from Miami, his offseason home. "It's a good opportunity. It's a good chance. We don't know anything yet, but we're going to sit down and talk."

Sosa said the sides were supposed to discuss matters over dinner last night, but Washington Nationals General Manager Jim Bowden said from the team's spring training complex in Viera, Fla., yesterday evening that no face-to-face meeting was scheduled for last night. Bowden did spend much of yesterday talking with Tom Reich, one of Sosa's agents.

Two Nationals sources said yesterday that should the club sign Sosa, it would be to a one-year, incentive-laden deal. One source said that the Nationals wouldn't be willing to guarantee Sosa any money and, should a deal be completed, they would carefully monitor Sosa's health and ability during the spring. Sosa could get time in the spring when Alfonso Soriano, slated to be the starting left fielder, plays in the World Baseball Classic and Jose Guillen, the starter in right, recovers from shoulder surgery.

Sosa, 37, hit only .221 and earned a base salary of $18 million with the Baltimore Orioles last season. Now, his suitors are almost non-existent, and the Nationals might be the only major league team willing to give him a chance. Sosa could make guaranteed money in Japan, but he is intent on hitting 600 major league home runs; he needs 12 more. He would have to fit into an outfield that includes not only Soriano and Guillen, but Ryan Church, Michael Tucker, Brandon Watson and Marlon Byrd competing for spots. Byrd avoided arbitration yesterday by agreeing to a one-year, $800,000 deal.

Sosa became one of the game's brightest stars and bubbliest personalities in his 13 seasons with the Chicago Cubs. His 588 homers are fifth on the career list -- two more than Nationals Manager Frank Robinson -- and he was once best known for the duel he staged with Mark McGwire of the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998, when they chased and broke Roger Maris's magical mark of 61 homers in a single season. He is a .274 career hitter with 1,575 RBI in parts of 17 major league seasons.

But Sosa and the Cubs organization tired of each other late in the 2004 season, and Bowden -- who said at one point, "I love Sammy" -- pursued him aggressively before he was traded to the Orioles. That offseason, though, Sosa was one of four active players who testified in person before Congress on the prevalence of steroids in baseball. Under questioning, Sosa said he had never used "illegal performance-enhancing drugs," had never "injected myself or had anyone inject me with anything," and had not "broken the laws of the United States or the laws of the Dominican Republic."

The careful wording of the statements stopped well short of an all-out denial, and left many to speculate that Sosa had, indeed, taken steroids at some point during his career. His production with the Orioles in 2005, the first season of baseball's tougher steroid policy, was his worst in more than a decade. His average, on-base percentage (.295) and slugging percentage (.376) were all his lowest since 1991. He hit 14 homers and drove in 45 runs in 102 games.

Sosa's season in Baltimore was as troublesome as it was disappointing. He went on the disabled list in May with a staph infection and in August with a toe lesion. The Orioles eventually decided it was best that Sosa not rejoin the team for the remainder of the season. Sosa said many of his troubles at the plate resulted from his various foot problems.

In addition, an alleged feud with shortstop Miguel Tejada, chronicled by late bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks, made Sosa's stay in Baltimore brief. Both players denied a deep rift, but at the very least it appears some animosity exists between them.

In other news, the Nationals named their minor league managers and coaching staffs. Tim Foli will remain the manager at Class AAA New Orleans. John Stearns is the manager at Class AA Harrisburg, and each of the three Class A affiliates will have new managers -- Randy Knorr at Potomac, Bobby Williams at Savannah and Edgar Caceres at Vermont.

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